Writing about culture–is it just adding to the noise?

When you go to a concert, read a book, attend a poetry reading, take a trip to the theater or visit a museum, I like to think that you’re starting a conversation with an artist. They’ve created this outpouring of creativity to try to reach your heart, your mind, yes, even your soul. If they succeed, you’ve been moved and you want to share that experience with others.

That water cooler moment when you share your thoughts about it, transforms that passive experience of you taking something in, into a transformative experience where you can relive the joy or share that knowledge learned. It makes you feel good to share those feelings or to warn someone to skip a show that you know they’d find offensive or bland.

I’ve often compared writing about film as a process similar to discussing wine. You gain an understanding of films and wines by sampling many types and learning about the craft. You can discuss nuances and enjoy flavors and discerns smells that might be missed by others. But still, you bring your own palate, your own experience to the table. My top pick of an Orin Swift Cellars Mercury Head wine or the Polish masterpiece, the film Cold War may strike you as overwhelming or pretentious. And what does my opinion matter to you?

A.O.Scott, one of the top film critics at the New York Times wrote a marvelous piece about criticism, A Critic Reviews His Own Role. He argues that writing about culture is akin to news reporting though “inherently subjective”. “No reader will agree with a critic all the time, and no critic requires obedience or assent from readers. What we do hope for is trust*. We try to earn it through the quality of our writing and clarity of our thought, and by telling the truth. The truth, in this case, about what we thought about what we saw, read or heard.” (*my emphasis)

What critics hope to share is what moved us. We want you to be inspired and to seek out the gems that might not get the attention we feel they deserve. That’s why, though I enjoy “Best of” Lists, what I love is lists like The Most Under-Appreciated Films of 2018 from Indiewire. When critics I respect, like Mick LaSalle of the SF Chronicle write rapturous reviews of films I’ve heard might be disasters ( “Vox Lux” review) or I read on Twitter that Kate Erbland and Tomris Laffly mention a film I should see on Netflix (Happy as Lazzaro), I make time to sit in front of a tv or seek out a film screening. Even though I don’t always agree with David Ehlrich, I crack up reading his reviews on Letterboxd. Manohla Dargis wrote an insightful piece on Barry Jenkins’ new film If Beale Street Could Talk and it makes me want to see the film again.

Whether you’re trying to save yourself money by not purchasing a ticket to an event that you’re not sure about…or looking for something exciting and fresh…find a critic writing reviews you can trust. Whether it’s in a paper, on a website, a blog or an Instagram post, you can start a conversation. It will lead you to an experience that’ll be worth your time and money. And who knows, it might enrich your soul.

Boy, Oh Boy, which film about a young man in crisis should you see?

As we head into Awards Season, there’s one sure bet. At least one film about a young man facing a crisis will be garnering nominations…and possibly all three. Beautiful BoyBoy Erased, and Ben is Back not only love the letter “B” — they all explore families struggling with addiction or homosexuality as they try to find a way to love their son while his actions threaten to destroy their family life. All three films showcase heart-felt performances by two talented young actors.
Lucas Hedges (Academy Award nominee for Manchester by the Sea) in both Boy Erased, as a Christian teen in conversion therapy and Ben is Back, as a drug addict determined to spend Christmas with family.
Timothée Chalamet (Golden Globe nominee) in Beautiful Boy is the affluent teen who spirals out of control with a meth addiction.

Having seen The Miseducation of Cameron Post, starring the talented
Chloë Grace Moretz, it‘s hard not to compare Lucas Hedge’s performance to hers and find it less-assured. Boy Erased is also about conversion therapy but it’s also a moving look at the relationship between this traumatized young man and his parents. Nicole Kidman gives another nuanced performance as a woman who loves her husband (Russell Crowe) and their religious life, but knows her son is hurting and damaged by the church dogma and this awful practice of forcing him to be someone he’s not.

Ben is Back features another mom/son relationship. Julia Roberts is receiving lots of critical acclaim for her performance as a woman determined to save her son even as she realizes she’s let a demon back into her home. Lucas Hedges is convincing as the young man who knows the truth about his addiction.

When a movie is set in an area you’re familiar with, like Marin County was for me in Beautiful Boy, I think it tends to draw you in even deeper into the story. The juxtaposition of gorgeous settings with depraved behavior made it even more unsettling. For me, the interactions between Steve Carell’s devasted dad and Timothee Chalamet’s helpless lying boy left me weeping and wanting to read both books based on this real struggle: Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction and Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.

If you’re only going to see one film of the three, my recommendation would be Beautiful Boy. Heart-breaking but hopeful, and the performances are Award-Worthy. This film is beautiful, mesmerizing and reveals the difficult truth that letting go when all you want to do is hold on, is sometimes the only way to save the one you love.